Thursday, June 18, 2009


"You know, shooting baskets is very satisfying", said my neighbor M.

"When you're making them", I responded as my one-handed jump shot clanged against the left outside of the basket rim, bounced off an unoccupied baby stroller, and rolled into the empty garage.

Mars and I were at a neighborhood picnic for the walkers and sponsors of one of the teams participating in a local "Autism Speaks" fundraising walk. The hosts are parents of an autistic daughter, A.

Even though I probably hear or read the word every day in the mass media I realized while at the party that I really knew very little about autism.

My IMac supplied dictionary defines it as "a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts."

I also remember reading that autistic people think in pictures rather than words. As a result they have difficulty understanding what is happening when a situation doesn’t look exactly the way they expected it to.

A is, I believe, the only autistic person that I know personally. She is a really sweet little eight year old who often looks like she is trying to put together her first jigsaw puzzle -- with too many pieces, and no idea what the finished product is supposed to look like.

Other than its raison d'etre this was a normal, everyday outdoor outing with the thirty or so participants dividing themselves into their usual demographic cliques. Ours was the fifty-years-and-over neighbor group, with the guys standing around the appetizer table near the beer keg and the women seated in a circle nearby.

After thirty minutes of guy-chat M, J (another neighbor), and I wandered out to the driveway/basketball court to join one of the pre-teen guests who was intently shooting baskets by himself. We played a game of P I G, a contest in which each person has to exactly emulate a shot made by one of the others or be assigned a letter for missing ("P", then "I" then "G"). Spell the word and you are out.

I myself had not touched a basketball in at least eight years. And it showed. I played a lot as a teenager -- pretty much every day after school and during the summer -- most of the time in a neighborhood schoolyard with chain metal nets.

I was a better passer than a shooter, aware of where I and others were on the court, and a good setter of picks to free up other teammates from those guarding them -- decent enough to be able to use basketball as one of my principal means of communicating and forming relationships with other people.

For many years after my adolescent playing days I would relax myself in bed at night by picturing the feeling of my body executing a perfect jump shot. As I got older, and my sports changed, my sleep-inducer changed to a forehand tennis shot, and most recently to a well executed drive down the middle of the golf fairway.

But out on this day my shots were just not dropping. The ball felt too big and the basket looked too small. I quickly got "P" and "I", then made a basket, then missed again and was eliminated. The next game went the same way. I was not surprised that I was less than perfect. But I was puzzled by the extent of my inability.

We three male adults wandered back to join the circle of our wives where we engaged in some couples-chat and a little food-chat while we ate. Then M and I went back onto the driveway for some informal basket shooting.

Suddenly I could not miss -- jump shots, hook shots, two pointers or threes nothing but net. The ball was small and the basket was big. Athletes talk about "seeing it" when something like this is happening. I was definitely "seeing it'.

WNBA coach Mike Thibault had this to say about his team's recent poor shooting performance, "A lot of this is resolved up here [the head]. These players have been shooting the ball their entire lives."

During my earlier attempts I was aware of all the things in my surroundings -- trees, cars, fellow picnickers. Now all I sensed was the ball, the basket, and the space between them.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, 90% of life is mental -- the other half is experience.

1 comment:

Bram said...

Couple of our friends in the comic group are producing Peoplings, a comic about autistic children -- one based on a student the writer has worked with, the other from historical documents of a "feral" child.

It's some pretty amazing stuff, and the whole nature of it -- visual over verbal -- ties into what studies have shown about how autistics perceive the world.